The rarely seen snowy owl makes a comeback in the Washington region, but this Christmas, the majestic snow bird gives bird-watchers and ornithologists a treat as they come together for the annual Christmas Bird Count.
The yearly event, which has been going on since the turn of the 20th century, sees a group of bird-watchers from all over the country coming together to collect data on the various bird species that flock to the area and information about habitat pollution, which is essential for ecologists and environmentalists to continue their work on preservation.
Each participant has volunteered to be part of the event. They are not paid. On Sunday, however, birders received an unexpected surprise when they saw the arctic snowy owl flying near the runways of the Reagan National Airport.
"We just saw a snowy owl," Will McPhail, 33, or Northwest Washington exclaimed to his companion William Young. "It was awesome."
McPhaill was standing on the grounds of the Gravelly Point Park in Arlington when Young found him.
The event is one of the few times bird-watchers participating in the Christmas Bird Count spotted the bird and its frost-colored feathers, said 70-year-old Daphne Gemmill, who has been participating in the bird-watching event every year since 1978.
Swooping through the skies as several Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 rushed past, the great white owl re-awakened the excitement for the eight bird-watchers who were assigned to spread throughout the area around the airport, Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary and Roosevelt Island.
The bird was identified by its white plumage, great size and the sound it makes - typically a barking, almost quacking krek-krek for males and a softer pree-pree or prek-prek for females.
The last time the snowy owl was spotted was in January, when one was seen and, naturally, photographed by pedestrians clutching their smartphones and tablets as the great female bird perched on top of a green awning near downtown Washington's McPherson Square Park in the middle of rush hour. The bird was later brought to the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center for treatment after it was hit by a bus. Although the bird recovered and was released, the bird was later found dead on the side of a road presumably hit by a moving vehicle while it was hunting.
Geoff LeBaron, who is in charge of the Christmas Bird Count for the Audubon Society, cites climate change as the most common reason for rare sightings. He says the warmer winters up north result in birds migrating south to the Washington area later than they used to.
More than 2,400 birders from the US, Canada, South America and South Pacific are participating in the annual Christmas Bird Count, which is being held from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5.
On Sunday, Young, McPhaill and company also spotted a rare black-crowned night heron and a bald eagle. Other birds sighted include hawks, pigeons, white-throated sparrows, Canada geese and woodpeckers. Young says his group spotted 57 species in the area, which is down from the previous year's 61.